Where were we? Ah, right, safely and happily ensconced at Mauro’s Posada in beautiful Bahia de Los Angeles. Which of course means I couldn’t sit still.
At some point in the previous evenings conversation, someones mentioned, “Are you here to pet baby whales?”
“Wait – what? I am now!”
In a fantastic coincidence, I arrived just in time for the tail end (hee hee) of whale breeding season (April-March). Eco-tours in the towns adjacent to Scammon’s Lagoon offered boat trips to see them up close, even pet the babies! Their natural predators, killer whales, wouldn’t follow into the shallow waters, so grey whales raise their young there before venturing north along the coast. The first grey whales I saw were in Alaska, much further along their migration. Now I had a chance to interact with them as calves?!
I discussed with my hosts the possibility of riding to San Ignacio (because it’s a cool old town), but the town of Guerrero Negro was closer and Mauro had a friend with Malarrimo Tours. He and Alessandro were taking the camper into town for errands and building supplies anyhow, so they offered me a ride in the camper!
We were up early to try to make it for an 11am tour time, but I was getting the impression Baja time is much like scooter time, which sat fine with me. Based on the hour I was contenting myself to just poke around town with Alessandro and Mauro. However, we forgot there was a timezone change when we crossed into Baja California Sur. I totally arrived half an hour early, and because I was solo they had no trouble squeezing me onto a trip.
Much of the main drag of Guerrero Negro was devoted to whale tours. Most of my boat mates were of the older, vacationing type, for whom this was their second or third or fifth return trip. I paid my $40 and felt a bit foreign waiting for the bus in the clean resort environment, though I availed myself of their WC. The tour promised whales up close, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
But when we motored out to the lagoon, they were everywhere!
A mother and her baby would come up to the boat, and then when they leave you look up to see spouts and flippers all around. The boat motors on until the next curious mother and baby, who swims right up. Repeat, lunch break, and then repeat for the next several hours!
It’s hard to be anything but utterly delighted when a mother whale nudges her baby up to the boat so that you can pet her/him. As soon as they draw near everybody reaches towards the whales, and smiles are the same in every language. They’re curious, playful, and enormous. And they feel really unexpected…rubbery on the outside, but with a very obvious give and heave that can only come from life and feeling.
They’re quite accustomed to humans, perhaps as tiny, easy-to-please playthings. Many times, as whales approach the boats, they’ll turn sideways and just look you over a bit. As if to say, “Yeah… yeah this lot seem alright, I’ll let you near me.” Good call, since an adult is easily five times the size of the boat…
You pass these tall, pure white dunes on the way to the lagoon. Salt mining is the big industry here. Mitsubishi owns about half the town for salt drying and distribution, after buying it from a local in the 70s.
The camper ride itself was magical. It was heavy and boxy, with a top speed of about 55mph. “It’s a Ferrari,” Mauro said, referring to its fuel thirstiness. He rolls the ‘r’ with his accent. “But I like going this speed. You don’t need to go faster to enjoy.” In his past, Mauro raced off road bikes.
The trip each way took about 4 hours when ‘regular’ cars would take just under 3, but it could have lasted forever. The sun turned the desert pink, purple, lavender… a million shades without names. People complained the new poles delivering electricity ruined the natural beauty, but even those were lit up in a brilliant shade of coral, beautiful to my eyes. Shadows stretched out in violet. Shrubbery, hills, cactuses were all softly consumed. Nothing was left untouched by the majesty of the sunset. We chugged along through it in quiet reverence, windows down, 45mph, on this whimsical behemoth stuck to a Toyota.
There were only a few other cars, and one military checkpoint. They cut the engine to talk and the camper had trouble starting up again, but everyone seemed content to wait. Mauro chatted away in Italian-accented Spanish.
I didn’t bother to take photos, it would be impossible to capture.
I could get used to this pace.
Up till this point, daytime had been temperate and nights positively cool. Today, the day that I had to dig my scooter out of sand, temperatures suddenly soared. I sweated under the sun as I removed my gear, trying to shed some weight and free my bike.
It’s weird, looking back at these photos I’m amazed at such natural beauty. At the time though, immersed in the landscape, my eyes were saturated. I knew that I’d found myself in a place of indescribable beauty, yet existing there was as natural as breathing. Of course the mountains and the bay looked that way, of course the air smelled like blooming desert flowers. Every moment was a feast for the senses, to the point that it almost became plain.
How do you explain water to a fish? Does it spoil you for the rest of the world?
As I traveled through the peninsula, people warned me of a rough section I intended to cross. They’re paving more of it every day (and in some people’s opinions, harkening the beginning of the end of old Baja), but as of 2015 the turn off from Mex-1 to Mex-5 would be entirely sand and dirt for anywhere from 15-30 miles, depending on the account. I was not deterred, but I planned on spending longer in that section. Besides, I wanted to meet this Coco everyone was talking about!
When I stopped to chat with Rick in his camper, he asked, “Isn’t that why you’re here? To see remote Baja?”
Actually the only mental picture I had of Baja before arriving was cartoon cactuses. I suppose I’m here to see the remote part, or the less remote parts, or just to see what’s here. At 5-8mph on washboard dirt and gravel, apparently.
I took many breaks for water, photos, or chatting. My street tires slid in the sand crazily – I merely guided it roughly in the right direction. But still, the constant bumping around was wearing on me, and there was a point, sometime on the immeasurable desert clock, that I started to crack. I knew this machine wasn’t meant for this, and I began to worry for my bike. Large rocks especially would compromise the suspension, sending shocks up the bike and into my bones. Sometimes the road was made entirely of them. It felt more and more like a plastic toy, bouncing along something far too big for it. I crawled along at a snail pace, unable to relax for a second, wincing for my bike, with no end in sight and no one around. Time distended, and in my worried state I found myself telling my bike, “Don’t crap out on me now, we’re going to Maine. You and I aren’t done, we have more miles to go. We’re going to make it to Maine, just you and me…” I knew in my heart the reassurance was more for myself, but it didn’t stop me from getting a bit choked up.
In the end, it took me 4 hours to cross 25 miles of dirt, sand, gravel, rocks, and everything in between. I’m sure it would be a blast on another bike, but this was the one I had and it was the roughest road I have ever ridden with her. I cheered in my helmet when I found pavement again!
One military checkpoint and a spare gas stop later, I was at my destination: Puertecitos.
I don’t recall who first mentioned this town over any of the other small towns I passed by, but Puertecitos’ main draw is its natural sulfuric hot springs. The springs are right on the coast, so at high tide seawater mixes with the hot spring water to make for a fantastic soaking experience. Rocks have been arranged to form pools and small waterfalls. As the tide goes out, the higher pools become too hot so you migrate to lower pools, until you are at sea level.
After the grueling dirt ride, as soon as the tent was set up I bolted for the springs.
The coyotes howled, but couldn’t keep me from sleep.
When I pulled into Peurtocitos it was nearly dusk. The next day, I’d eaten through my onboard supplies and the baked goods selection at the convenience store. I decided to ride to one of the restaurants I’d passed up the street, about 15 miles. The road was so new and perfect and empty, I must have been doing 70mph when I passed a familiar group of motorcyclists at a scenic pull off…
At lunch, another motorcyclist pulled in and joined me. He lived on a sailboat, but had picked up his bike from San Diego for a ride into Baja. Normally, he would do Mex-1 as far as he felt like and loop back, but he noticed that there was a loop from Mex-5. I looked at his bike, a Sportster with street tires, and told him I’d just come up that way. He didn’t realize it wasn’t paved. I didn’t want to discourage him, but I told him I took 4 hours to cross it, and suggested to drive to the intersection and look at it. There’s a beautiful seaside campground near the military checkpoint if he decided not to ride it that day.
Woohoo, I actually have information to give for once!
In the timelessness of the beach, I visited the springs at every opportunity. I most liked it at night. Without the blinding sun, you could lay in the water looking up at the night sky. I counted shooting stars, and played with cold seawater with one hand while paddling hot spring water with the other. Often you could stir up bright green and gold phosphorescents. I could chat with other spring goers from around the world. Sometimes I’d catch a whiff of the sulfuric air, but it didn’t bother me – I enjoyed it as part of the springs.
Mike has a daughter roughly my age, and I think he might have missed her because he spoiled me with this fantastic breakfast. So simple, but after the desert, the taste of butter was decadent. They bring all of their supplies, including drinking water, so I’m very grateful they shared some with me.
The pace was the epitome of taking it as it comes. Friendship came easily in that kind of setting. Without phones or regular electricity, modern concerns melted away – even to the point of regular bathing (whatever, I went to the springs and hosed off with the rainwater basin). Is the Pemex gas station closed after 4? Just go tomorrow.
I could see losing myself in the beach, the sea, the springs, and only realize a week or more had gone by when I looked up to count the days. It wouldn’t be a bad way to lose a week or three.
But was that what I was here to do? Difficult as it was to admit it, I wanted to keep going. I’m just an interloper, adopted for a few days by this quirky, cozy community. Plus, I did have an appointment I kind of wanted to keep in Arizona. I thanked everyone I met and left Puertocitos quietly, knowing that at the rate Baja was changing, even if I should return it would never be the same.
San Felipe was beautiful, and covered over in race stuff. I think I was still longing for the smell of sulfur and rocky beaches – the fine sand and blue ocean was too perfect to my eyes, and the wandering salespeople pushing trinkets on me were annoying. I ordered some rolled tacos and a margarita, and paid with card. Things were changing.
Originally, I intended to go straight to Arizona, but Susanne had reached out so I swung back to Ensenada. It’s moments like these I really value freedom of schedule. How often do I get to re-meet people on the road?
I hadn’t thought that I’d been roughing it alone in the desert for a week (probably something to do with being surrounded by stunning natural beauty), but when I arrived back in the hustle, bustle, bars, cars, noise, and lights of Ensenada… I was swirly eyed. Amenities were everywhere. Not only could I order a drink, I could order some hipster concoction that could have come off a Brooklyn menu. Susanne and I met up with her Spanish classmates at Hussong’s, and proceeded to hit the town.
Last night, I was camped alone on a beach with no running water or electricity. Tonight, we found ourselves at an underground salsa dance club, and an outdoor plaza centered around a raised DJ stand, shooting mezcal. The contrast (and the booze) made my head spin.
But even with the alcohol (I thought that kills germs!) the place that culture shock really hit hard… was in the gut. The next day, I had the rumbles and was on the pot every half hour.
Yeeeuupp, it’s moments like these I really value freedom of schedule. So much for my plans to head to Arizona for the next couple days. It was nice having a day to chill and catch up on blogging and drawings at the hostel though.
Some hostel guests were pooling together to get a cheaper rate for a wine tour. There was no way I was turning that down, rumbles or not. I was beginning to feel better anyway.
I guess even in the city, you can find some of that Baja pace. Head buzzing again, it was a beautiful evening to chill in the hostel.
I’m not a big Tecate fan, but since I planned on passing by Tecate anyway I figured I’d get a free beer at the brewery. When I first crossed through Tecate, I had the address wrong and while looping around the little streets trying to get my bearings with new approaches to traffic, stray dogs barked and chased me. I decided I did not need beer that badly (come to find out later, you can usually give these dogs a firm NO and they’ll cool it).
This time around, armed with my newfound confidence in handling dogs and local city traffic, I arrived at the brewery… to discover it was closed for a national holiday.
At least there was a great taco shop next door.
Mexicali, where I originally intended to cross, was a strip mall. I followed suggestions to cross instead at Los Algodones, which is smaller and mostly a hotspot for Americans to get cheaper pharmaceuticals, glasses, and dental work. I bypassed about a mile of cars and the guards waved me in right after another motorcycle, no wait.
At the crossing, the US border official did the run down, How long have you been in Mexico/What are you carrying with you/Did you buy anything there, glasses or drugs. Then he had a look behind me, “You traveling alone?” I did my usual Yeeeup. He laughed, “You must like adventure. Welcome home.”
And that was that. Smooth pavement, proper signage, and American English awaited.
In retrospect, the time spent on the Baja peninsula was a short venture, only 12 days, and I didn’t even ride down to Cabo. Somehow, every hour of those days were packed to the brim – there was no sense of lacking.
I heard someone say that once you get the Baja dust on you, it never comes off. I thought this was a laundry tip, but the meaning is that you’ll never fully be able to shake the desire to return. “Go native,” you might say. I’d certainly met those who had. And I did have dust on me – quite literally, my bike was a mess and I could have used cleaning advice – but even if I returned I expect to find a different Baja. In many ways, Baja is still a frontier, one of the few remaining and so close-by for Americans. Riding Baja has certainly changed me, in a part of Mexico that is changing rapidly itself. Perhaps I’m part of the plague, opening it up for more tourists with wifi and coffee needs. Those electricity lines are going up in an once unspoiled desert, convenience is coming for all. On the other hand, some people are very concerned with the search for “real” Baja. Why isn’t change considered real? The mountains, ocean, desert, and people were plenty real to me, reality turned up to 11. Enough to fill my heart for a long time.
All I have to say is that riding Baja changed me.
Also, I’m doing shorter posts from now on, this took forever to put together!